LEWISTON — About a dozen state workers marched along Main Street outside the Department of Health and Human Services office Wednesday to protest going more than four years without raises.
The DHHS workers, members of the more than 10,000-member Maine State Employees Association, used their lunch hour to bring attention to what they say are unfair wages.
The workers said they oppose Republican Gov. Paul LePage's budget proposal because it would leave in place pay freezes initiated by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci in 2009.
The workers walked back and forth on the sidewalk holding signs with messages including, "Tax breaks for the rich, pay cuts for the rest of us." They chanted slogans, such as, "Hey, hey what do you say? Why do workers have to pay?"
Motorists honked horns enthusiastically, but it was unclear whether they were supporting or opposing the picketers.
Union spokesman Tom Farkas said the "informational picket" was intended to raise public awareness of the state budget.
He said contracted merit increases and so-called step increases were frozen by Baldacci and the Legislature in 2009, but that was meant as a temporary measure during the worst of the "great recession."
LePage's subsequent budget kept those freezes in place and reduced employee benefit packages while increasing state workers' share of medical insurance costs, Farkas said.
He said cuts to health insurance, wages and retirement benefits have cost state workers an estimated $1 billion.
Lawmakers also froze longevity pay increases in 2009 for employees who have worked for the state for 15 years or more. That 25-cent-per-hour increase had been given to employees who reached 15 years and again at 25 years of service. LePage's current budget proposes eliminating the longevity pay, Farkas said.
He said the pay freeze and benefit cuts and the elimination of about 1,000 state jobs has led to recruitment and retention problems for the state.
Picketer Ray Heathco, 66, of Auburn has worked for the state for 24 years. He said the current situation wasn't only costing employees pay but was also having a negative effect on the state's budget. Heathco is involved in collecting child-support payments, and he said that support goes not only to the poor but to any working-class family that is in need of assistance in getting child support from a deadbeat parent.
Heathco said caseloads for state workers were not going down, but the number of workers left to handle those caseloads were, in part due to hiring freezes and more workers leaving for better-paying jobs in the private sector.
The funding he and his colleagues help collect offsets General Assistance and other types of state subsidies for families in need. That, in turn, saves taxpayers money, Heathco said.
"You are only going to work so many cases a day," Heathco said. The state is also working to meet federal requirements that would allow it to collect federal funds.
The DHHS workers were protesting because they wanted to make sure the Legislature and LePage pass a state budget, Heathco said. He said LePage has been reluctant to raise any state taxes because he wants to protect tax breaks for Maine's wealthiest families.
Heathco said his response to unemployed Mainers who might say state workers should be happy they have a job is, "We are happy we have a job, but at the same time a good reason why we don't have a fair wage is we aren't really asking the people who have the majority of the money to pay for their share."
Farkas said the union was pushing the Legislature to overturn state income tax cuts made two years ago. Those tax breaks, which the LePage administration has said eliminates state income taxes for 70,000 low-income families, go into effect this tax year.
Farkas also said Maine workers were paid less than what they could make in comparable jobs in the private sector and that had led to retention and recruitment problems.
In fact, Maine Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett told the Legislature's Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee in February that the wage freezes were affecting recruitment and retention. Workers in several key fields were leaving state government for the private sector and better pay, Millett said.
Farkas said state workers starting today are paid the same wage as their colleagues who have been on the job for four years or more.
"It's simply not right," he said.
The Legislature is working to craft a new state budget and must have one in place by the end of the fiscal year on June 30 to avoid a state-government shutdown.
Cynthia Montgomery, the chief counsel with the state's Office of Employee Relations, which negotiates union contracts on behalf of the governor, said Wednesday they have been working in good faith to reach an agreement with the union on wages and other benefits.
But Montgomery said it was ultimately up to the Legislature to set the final financial arrangements in the state budget.
"The budget has to be passed by the Legislature," Montgomery said. She said it was difficult because while the executive branch is tasked with negotiating state worker contracts, "the Legislature holds the purse strings."
Montgomery confirmed that state workers have gone for more than four years without pay increases. "And I am one of those state workers, as well," she said.
State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the House chair of the Legislature's budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said Wednesday the committee was well aware of the problems the pay freeze and benefit cuts were having on the state's ability to retain and recruit employees.
Rotundo also said it was unfair for the administration to suggest the Legislature was responsible for the long-term freeze and noted that LePage's most current budget proposal maintains the salary freeze and further reduces state employee benefits.
"State employee wages and benefits are among the things this Legislature is currently working to restore as we move forward with our budget proposals," Rotundo said.